Statutes of limitations are state laws that limit the time a debt collector has to bring a lawsuit. After the statute of limitations has passed, debt collectors can still sue you, but the statute of limitations is a strong defense in a debt collection lawsuit. The length of these laws can vary tremendously by state and by the type of contract you made for the debt (oral, written, etc.).
What Is the Statute of Limitations on Debt Collection?
A statute is a written law. The statute of limitations on debt is a state law that limits the time that a debt collector has to bring a lawsuit. Statutes of limitations set a specific time frame for plaintiffs to bring a civil lawsuit in court. If a party doesn’t file a lawsuit within the required amount of time, that party loses the right to use the legal system to enforce repayment of the debt.
A statute of limitations on debt collection typically specifies a length of time, such as five years, and the event that marks the start date for this time. Some common starting events include:
The date of your last payment
The date of your first missed payment
The date you last admitted to owing the debt
Different states have different statutes of limitations because each state sets its own laws. There are often different time frames for different debt types. For example, the statute for oral contracts often differs from the statute for written contracts. And in many states, different kinds of written contracts are subject to different statutes of limitations. State statutes of limitations for credit card debt typically range from three years to 10 years.
What Types of Debt Contracts Are There?
There are four main types of debt contracts:
Oral agreements made between two people without a written record (harder to prove in court)
Written contracts describe the debt and are signed by the lender and the borrower
Promissory notes, such as you might sign for student loans or as part of a mortgage loan
Open-ended accounts like credit card accounts or lines of credit
Statute of Limitations for Debt by Contract Type and State
It’s common to wonder how long a debt collector has to collect your unpaid debt. Since the statute of limitations differs by state and type of debt contract, you’ll need to know both to determine the time period collection agencies have to sue on your consumer debt.
Are All Debts Subject to Statutes of Limitations?
No. Some debts aren’t subject to statutes of limitations, including:
Federal student loans
Some private student loans
Income tax debt
Child support payments.
There is no time limit for creditors and collectors to take legal action and sue you for these types of delinquent debts.
Can You Be Sued for Debt That's Past the Statute of Limitations?
Yes, but it's complicated.
The statute of limitations is a defense. That means that, if a debt collector sues you, it’s your job to raise that defense in court. Neither the judge nor the court staff is responsible for checking the statute of limitations when a lawsuit is filed.
In other words, some companies may still sue you even if the statute of limitations has passed and the debt is time-barred. You can use the statute of limitations as a defense to get the lawsuit dismissed. But be aware that, even if the statute of limitations has expired, some creditors may try to:
Dispute the start date of the statute
Argue that you reset the statute of limitations by repaying part of the debt or admitting to owing it
Argue which state's laws apply in your case
What Do You Do if You Get Sued for a Time-Barred Debt?
If someone is suing you for a debt that's time-barred (aka past the statute of limitations), answer the lawsuit and use the statute of limitations as a defense in the lawsuit. This may feel intimidating, but know that you have the legal right to dispute the case and a valid defense to use in the case against you.
Unfortunately, if you don't reply to the lawsuit, the debt collector can win the suit with a default judgment even if the statute of limitations has expired. For you to win, you must answer the lawsuit and raise this defense. It's easier to win the debt collection lawsuit than you might think!
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Can Debt Collectors Still Contact You About Debt That's Past the Statute of Limitations?
Yes. The statute of limitations protects you from being sued in court, but you still legally owe the debt.
Debt collectors still have the right to contact you to try to collect the debt, though you can ask them to stop contacting you. It's against the law for debt collectors to make harassing phone calls or disregard your request to stop contacting you at home or work. Know your rights under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) and your state’s debt collection laws.
Stopping debt collector contact can provide stress relief, but know that this won't stop other potential negative outcomes.
One of the biggest potential consequences of the debt is that it can still be reported to the credit bureaus and appear on your credit report and credit history. This means it can hurt your credit score. That said, older debt doesn’t have as much weight as recent credit history.
Pay close attention to your credit history as it evolves. Under federal law, each credit bureau must give you a free credit report every 12 months.
Know Your Rights! How the Law Protects You Regarding Statute of Limitations
Don’t give debt collectors the upper hand. It’s important to know your rights when it comes to debt collection. This is especially important for issues related to the statute of limitations.
Here are a few ways to protect yourself.
Be Careful What You Say to Debt Collectors
If you promise to pay an old, time-barred debt or make some partial payment, you may revive or restart the statute of limitations period for collecting the debt.
A limitations period may be based on the date of your last payment. This means that the period begins or the clock restarts on the date of the last payment. In this case, the collector could continue to pursue you for the entire debt, along with interest and late fees. You would lose the right to use the statute as a legal defense if sued. If you find yourself in this situation, seek legal advice.
Remember: You can always ask the debt collector to send a debt validation letter to make sure the details of the debt are correct. You don’t have to admit to owing an old debt or make promises to repay it.
Ask if the Statute of Limitations Has Expired
While a debt collector may not be forthcoming with this information, they must reply truthfully if you ask them if the statute of limitations has expired. If they don’t, they’ve violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). The FDCPA is a powerful federal law that protects consumers against unfair debt collection practices.
Report Debt Collectors Who Threaten To Sue on Time-Barred Debt
By law, debt collectors can’t threaten to sue you for time-barred debts (those past the statute of limitations). In most states, this means they also can’t threaten you with any actions that would require them to sue you and get a judgment against you, such as a bank levy or wage garnishment.
If this happens, report the debt collector. You can report to any of the following:
Your state’s attorney general’s office, which helps with consumer complaints
The statute of limitations is a state law that outlines how long creditors or debt collectors have to sue you for a delinquent debt. Each state sets its own debt collection laws. For common consumer debt, such as credit card debt, the statute of limitations ranges from 3–10 years, depending on the state. Other types of debt contracts, like written contracts or promissory notes, may have a longer statute of limitations.
If the statute of limitations lapses, the debt is considered time-barred. While you may still be sued for this debt, you can use the statute of limitations as a defense in the lawsuit to get it dismissed. However, debt collectors may still try to collect old debt, and it can continue to be reported on your credit history and affect your credit score.